Sustainable Visual Arts

Between 2013 - 2014 we worked with a number of Scottish visual arts practitioners to explore questions of environmental sustainability in different festival, commissioning and curating contexts. Find out more about the research and download some useful templates from our research process.

Practitioner Research

In 2013 we initiated a number of conversations with professionals working in a variety of visual arts contexts. We were interested in understanding how questions of environmental sustainability might be expressed in practical and conceptual ways within visual arts festival organisation, curatorial practices and commissioning of artworks.

Our research questions included:

  • What methodologies could be developed to better understand the environmental impact of visual art commissions and festivals?
  • How could this be used, shared and developed by the visual arts community rather than externally determined or evaluated?
  • Could a model of triple bottom line reporting (economy, environmental and social sustainability) be used in visual arts festival contexts and how would this work?

In July 2013 we held a Strategy Group meeting to review the direction of our research. The meeting brought together a group of visual arts and carbon experts including Sorcha Carey (Edinburgh Art Festival), Matt Baker (Artist and curator of Environmental Art Festival Scotland), Anne Petrie (Creative Scotland) and Rachel Dunk (Crichton Carbon Centre). Click here to download a short summary of the meeting.

There has already been some interesting ground work in this area by Chrysallis Arts and ixia which we were keen to build on.

Edinburgh Art Festival

Between 2013 – 2014 we worked with EAF on their major exhibition exploring and problematising the history of the Commonwealth Where do I end and you begin (August 2014) to gather new data on areas including:

  • Artist and curator travel
  • Transportation of artworks
  • Installation materials and equipment energy consumption

In the year leading up to the exhibition we held a series of group and Skype discussions with the five exhibition curators to introduce questions of environmental sustainability into their decision making processes. We asked the curators to keep a travel log, as well as a record of their personal reflections on the process, to expand the depth of their engagement in sustainability whilst undertaking the project.

Download the travel log which we created for the curators here.

All sorts of tricky questions arise when you combine questions of sustainability and international working: what are the trade-offs between shipping artworks and flying them?; what social benefits might come from bringing an artist with their work to Edinburgh; how does the lifespan of the artwork effect it’s environmental impact?

These questions are difficult and not always reconcilable but we see taking the time to consider them as a first step to embedding sustainability more firmly within different practices.

Some key decisions were made, partly as a result of these conversations, which reduced the environmental impact and financial cost of the exhibition. These included:

  • Reconstruction of some artworks in Scotland rather than shipping long distances
  • Framing of artworks in Edinburgh, therefore reducing weight in shipping
  • Interception of artworks in their transportation between other galleries and festivals in order to reduce shipping miles
  • Use of Skype calls to reduce travel for meetings between curators, artists and EAF

Environmental Art Festival Scotland

In 2013 we also teamed up with EAFS and the Crichton Carbon Centre to explore the realities of implementing a triple bottom line approach to running the festival, considering environmental, social and economic sustainability impacts of public art commissions and the festival as a whole.

Part of our contribution was to encourage the commissioned artists to consider environmental impacts of the production and installation of their artworks. The key areas we have asked them to think about were:

  • Travel and transportation of artworks,
  • Materials used,
  • Waste, recycling and lifespan of artworks.

We created this interview template to discuss with the artists some different areas for consideration. Some of the findings and feedback on this process included:

  • Travel and transportation of artworks had the largest environmental impact. The two long-haul (return) flights taken by one commission produced a carbon footprint which was equivalent to over half of the total car-related carbon emissions for all other commissions.
  • The majority of artists were very conscious of the waste they produced and the amount of materials they reused or recycled. They were equally aware of their travel-related carbon emissions, however were less able to take action to reduce their travel associated with their commissions.
  • There was general consensus that Dumfries and Galloway region poses some difficult questions for artists wanting to live outside of cities but also have a more sustainable practice due to poor public transport provision and large distances between regions.
  • During telephone and Skype interviews some artists emphasised the potential educational benefits of their work which were expressed conceptually or in more implicit ways but which did not fit into the diary format.
  • There were challenges in sourcing data such as the distances travelled by suppliers and the original source of materials. This is something festival organisers could help with – e.g. supporting artists procure more locally/sustainably produced materials?

The new findings and knowledge generated from the research with artists as well as with audiences has acted as a useful feedback loop to help influence decisions about future iterations of the festival. In particular, the siting of artworks across one coherent site to reduce the amount of audience travel.

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We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

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A project initiated by Edinburgh’s Festivals with key partners the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network

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